GUEST POST: It’s time to accelerate the advancement of women in science

This blog post has been guest-written by Anita Muathe, in honour of the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Anita is one of the 2021 recipients of Proprep’s Bridging the STEM Skills Gap Scholarship. She studies Forensic Science at the University of Central Lancashire.

In 2015, the United Nations declared 11th February – today! – to be the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day’s purpose is to promote full and equal access to participation in science for women and girls. This is in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals 1 (to end poverty) and 5 (to achieve gender equality).

Representation matters

It’s important and meaningful that an entire day has been set aside to acknowledge women in science. Despite much social progress, many still believe that women are less intelligent, rational, or competent than men, and so do not make capable scientists. Research on biological factors shows that the gender gap in STEM is not the result of innate differences in ability between the sexes. So why are maths and science still seen as “boy subjects”?

Photo credit: Inside Creative House, Shutterstock

Studies suggest that girls’ disadvantage in STEM is a result of the socialisation process. Damaging stereotypes are both explicitly and implicitly passed onto girls from a young age. When I was in high school, I was definitely expected to excel in languages and arts-based subjects, instead of maths and natural sciences. We also had fewer female role models to look up to. Even in our own school, the science and maths departments were dominated by male teachers. This can be particularly discouraging for young girls, like me, interested in pursuing science-based careers.

Even if they perform just as well as boys in school, fewer girls will choose to take up science courses in their higher education. According to UNESCO data, women represent only 35% of all students enrolled in STEM-related fields. Girls’ confidence, interest, and willingness to engage in STEM subjects is often undermined.

Even when women do make it into scientific job roles, they are treated differently from their male counterparts. According to UNESCO, women in STEM do not advance as far as men in their careers. They are published less, and paid less for their research. This indicates that improving access to science education for girls is crucial, but not enough.

Why we need women in science

We need equal representation and participation of the genders in STEM, because many global challenges depend on science for their resolution. Pursuing climate action, sustainability, clean energy, infrastructure and economic growth, can and should involve equal contribution by female and male scientists.

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A gender imbalance leads to biased one-dimensional research and proposals. Leaving out women and girls is leaving out half of the world’s population. Girls are the greatest untapped population to become the next generation of STEM professionals.

In addition, women are globally more deprived than men. Poverty, poor healthcare, lack of education, lack of access to clean water and sanitation, and inhibited economic growth impact women to a greater extent. Solutions to these problems must include female innovation. Our intelligence and creativity, as well as our ambition to advocate for disadvantaged women and girls, make us crucial agents in achieving development goals.

Marking this day allows us to reflect on ways to address the disparities faced by women and girls in science. We can thus begin to make changes to address the inequalities in science careers for women. We can also revitalise young girls, empowering them to follow their science dreams.

Five inspiring women in STEM

Due to the long-held (false!) belief that science and maths are “boy subjects”, female scientists and mathematicians have always been in the minority. They are underrepresented in every geographical region, and, in total, less than 30% of researchers in the world are women. However, despite its reputation as a male-dominated field, there are a ton of inspirational women in STEM. To celebrate the International Day of the Girl, here are just five of the female pioneers leading the way on the STEM scene:

Margaret Hamilton

Photo credit: Wikipedia

One of our favourite examples of women in STEM is Margaret Hamilton, an American computer scientist, systems engineer and business owner. 

As head of the Software Engineering Division of the MIT Instrumentation Lab, she developed the guidance and navigation system for the Apollo spacecraft. After Apollo, parts of her code went on to be used in Skylab, the first space station, and then in the space shuttle programme.

Not only was Hamilton a leading software engineer, but she was actually the one to coin the term for the first time! During the early stages of working on the Apollo programme, she was frustrated that the software wasn’t taken as seriously as other engineering disciplines. In reaction, she started referring to it as ‘software engineering’. A lady who wrote her own title as well as her code – we love to see it!

Dr Sue Black, OBE 

Photo credit: sueblack.co.uk

Dr Sue Black is a British computer scientist, academic, and social entrepreneur. In 2016, she was awarded an OBE for services to technology in Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s Honours list.

She is Professor of Computer Science and Technology Evangelist at Durham University. She is an Honorary Professor in the Department of Computer Science at UCL, and a Senior Research Associate at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. And I thought my CV was impressive…

But that’s not all. Passionate about supporting women in tech, Dr Black founded the UK’s first online network for them, BCSWomen. She also created #techmums, a social enterprise which empowers mums and their families through technology. What’s more, she started the campaign to get Bletchley Park – the site of World War II code-breaking – the heritage site status it deserves. Dr Black was instrumental in saving the park from closure due to lack of funding.

Yari Golden-Castaño 

Photo credit: iine.org

Yari Golden-Castaño is an American systems engineer. She is one of the 100 finalists of the Mars One project, which aims to select the first 24 settlers on Mars. 

Based at the MIT Lincoln Lab, she worked on data analysis for air traffic control systems for her first four years. Now she develops hardware and software for laser communication, which will be the Mars One travellers’ sole source of contact with Earth.

Additionally, Golden-Castaño is currently enrolled in a Space Biomed programme at MIT. The programme offers new perspectives on the relationship between microgravity and our muscles and bones.

She is an advocate for better representation of women in STEM, and organises and runs hands-on workshops to introduce young girls to engineering. She also speaks in schools, universities and professional organisations about space exploration and the importance of following your dreams.

Dr Mirjana Pović

Photo credit: iaa.csic.es

Dr Mirjana Pović is a Serbian astrophysicist. She is a Professor of Physics and head of the Department of Astronomy at the Ethiopian Space Science and Technology Institute. Talk about an overachiever – she has contributed to over ten international projects!

Dr Pović works on the formation and evolution of galaxies, and investigates the formation rate and mass-metallicity of stars. She has taught physics across Africa, including to orphans in Rwanda and HIV-positive women in Tanzania. She believes that scientists should spend more time connecting to the developing world, and that education and science are fundamental tools for combating inequality.

In 2019, Dr Pović was awarded the inaugural Nature Research – Estée Lauder Inspiring Science Award. She is using the €10,000 prize money to build networks for women in STEM across Ethiopia. 

Karen Uhlenbeck 

Photo credit: NY Times

Karen Uhlenbeck is an American mathematician and a founder of modern geometric analysis, who developed tools and methods now used universally in her field. She works in global analysis as well as gauge theory, the mathematical language of theoretical physics.

Uhlenbeck is a Visiting Senior Research Scholar at Princeton University, as well as a Visiting Associate at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). She is a founder of the IAS’ Park City Mathematics Institute, which aims to train young researchers and promote understanding of the interests and challenges in maths. In addition, she’s a founder of its Women and Mathematics programme, created to recruit and empower women to lead in maths research.

Somehow not impressed yet? Last year, Uhlenbeck became the first female winner of the Abel Prize for “the fundamental impact of her work on analysis, geometry and mathematical physics”. The prize is awarded annually to highlight outstanding advancements in maths. This makes her one of our women in STEM icons, and one Karen we can definitely get behind.

You could be next!

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